The global impact of Azerbaijan’s presidential election
Special to Stars and Stripes January 25, 2024
In a U.S. election year, it’s easy to forget that there are other important votes scheduled to take place around the world. Azerbaijan’s election in February will have a significant impact on international affairs and global stability. Originally scheduled for 2025, President Ilham Aliyev decided to bring the vote forward as he looks to extend his time in office for another seven-year term.
Azerbaijan is a reliable Western partner in many endeavors. It borders Russia to the north, Iran to the south, and Armenia to the west. If not for Georgia to the northwest and the Caspian Sea to the east, Azerbaijan would be totally surrounded by corrupt and oppressive governments. Azerbaijanis have proven their adeptness at navigating the competing geopolitical interests that weave their way through a highly complex corner of the earth that has, throughout history, sat at the crossroads of warring empires.
As the dominant military and economic power in the South Caucasus, in today’s world Azerbaijan has an essential role in maintaining peace and security in the region. With Armenia firmly under the influence of both Iran and Russia, should Azerbaijan falter, Georgia’s security will be further imperiled. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already stirred up ethnic Russians in Georgia and used it as justification for previous attacks.
Western Europe was in a precarious situation when it opposed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s intent to use fossil fuel exports as a political influence was blocked when Azerbaijan became a major supplier of natural gas to the European Union. In 2022 European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen struck a deal with Aliyev in 2022 where his government agreed to double the annual volume of gas exported to the EU over the following five-year period.
This agreement has been critical in helping Europe wean itself off Russian fossil fuels. Without European military support of Kyiv and sanctions against Moscow, Ukrainians would have stood no chance of repelling their Russian invaders.
In further support of Ukraine, Azerbaijan sent humanitarian aid to Kyiv and provided its expertise in land-mine clearance to help rid its recaptured territory of Russian mines. This is not only an essential component of the war effort, but also the unavoidable first step in the long process of rebuilding Ukraine.
Just as it did in Georgia, then later in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of eastern Ukraine, Russia has also worked to create an insurrection In Azerbaijan’s western Nagorno-Karabakh region. Recognized as a sovereign territory of Azerbaijan under international law, the region has been home to a large ethnic Armenian population throughout much of its history.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, ethnic separatists in the province launched a “war of independence.” This was the first step of a land grab. Russian-backed Armenian occupation forces were deployed into the region to reinforce the separatist movement. The intent was for Armenia to annex the region once it was permanently lost by Azerbaijan.
For the next 22 years, Armenia and Azerbaijan were locked in a cycle of on-off military conflict. Unable to send ground convoys through Georgia or Azerbaijan, Russia transported weapons and military equipment through northern Iran into southern Armenia.
Over the past three years, Azerbaijan’s military has achieved a series of victories. Bogged down in a Ukraine stalemate, Russia was unable to intervene. Last September the separatists capitulated. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan commenced formal peace negotiations with Aliyev. The province’s reintegration into the Azerbaijani state is inevitable.
A new period of peace is on the horizon in the South Caucasus. The citizens of the Nagorno-Karabakh region will certainly benefit from once again being part of Azerbaijan. Hopefully, for the long term, Pashinyan will realize Armenia is better off working with Azerbaijan than being influenced by Moscow and Tehran. Just as he was using the separatists in this proxy war, Putin was using him.
This peace process has experienced periods of turbulence. Election polling results have caused Pashinyan to be more willing to develop a productive rapport with Aliyev. They appear to be close to finally reaching a formal peace agreement that will finally bring an end to this long-running conflict.
The last obstacle for Azerbaijan to overcome is foreign agitators trying to discredit its electoral process. Using Armenia in a proxy war failed them on the battlefield. An Aliyev victory will fail them on Election Day. All that is left for them is to discredit the results and claim elections in Azerbaijan are neither free nor fair. Agitators will not be limited to Armenia, Russia and Iran. Non-government organizations hiding their own special interests have a habit of picking up and further spreading misinformation and discontent.
Western governments and political leaders must not be wrongfully influenced by, and add to, the misinformation. In the wake of leading his country to military victory and enhancing Azerbaijan’s economic future by building a stronger relationship with the European Union, Ilham Aliyev appears well positioned to win reelection by a landslide. Hopefully, the west will follow Azerbaijani citizens in recognizing the benefits of another seven years of an Aliyev presidency.
Wes Martin, a retired U.S. Army colonel, has served in law enforcement positions around the world.